Refreshed Volvo S80 remains likeable left-field choice.
It's better value for money than the Germans, as long as you don't dip too deep into the options list, and it drives well enough that most people won't notice the difference.
Good points: comfy, gorgeous interior, smooth, refined, well made, not German.
Not so good: not German.
Test car details:
Model driven: Volvo S80 D3 Geartronic SE Lux
Price as tested: €49,095 (pricing starts at €37,245)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged diesel
Transmission: six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Body style: four-door saloon
Rivals: Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class
CO2 emissions: 129g/km (Band B1, €270 per annum)
Combined economy: 57mpg (4.9 litres/100km)
Top speed: 200km/h
0-100km/h: 10.4 seconds
Power: 136hp at 3,500rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 1,500- to 2,250rpm
OK, I admit it. I'm getting old and comfort is far more important to me than anything else these days. When I was a motoring hack once, and young, I truly believed that the only car anyone should actually be lusting after was a Porsche 911 Carrera RS 2.7. I held tight to that belief for a long time, only briefly being distracted along the way by such others as Series 1 Land Rovers, Mazda MX-5s (with pop-up lights, naturally) and Type-R Hondas.
And then age found me. It sneaked under my bedclothes one night, not so long ago, greyed my hair (it was already thinning since youth, thanks for asking), expanded my waistline, dimmed my vision and my libido and uploaded such phrases to my brain as 'consarn it' and 'git off my lawn, young 'uns!'
And now all I care about is comfort. Comfort, warmth, refinement and a really good stereo that my iPhone will connect seamlessly to so that I can listen to Radio 4 podcasts on the go. All of which may explain why I find myself so well disposed to the updated Volvo S80 saloon. By all rights, I should not.
After all, it is a large, quite expensive executive saloon that is not German. Now, if you want to buy an executive saloon, the conventional wisdom has it that you buy German. A BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 or Mercedes-Benz E-Class are all excellent choices with a long list of high points and few, if any, demerits. OK, so perhaps you don't want to buy German. Too obvious, too thrusting, too nouveau riche. That's what Jaguar and Lexus are there for. You buy a Jag if you care about sexy styling, sublime steering, racing heritage and you either like Austin Powers (me) or (also me) are a West Brit (grew up in West Cork, parents from Bromley and Eastbourne, respectively). You buy a Lexus GS 450h if you love cutting-edge tech, green credentials, OTT styling and paying more for fuel than you should do.
You buy a Volvo S80 because... Because why exactly?
Well, actually, you might well buy one because it's a very nice car indeed. Calling something nice is usually damning it with faint praise, but there really is no other epithet that more closely fits the S80's demeanour.
It's actually quite an aged design, the S80, dating back to 2006 - something that can clearly be seen in the fact that it still doesn't wear the swoopy headlights and curvy body panels of the new Volvo S60 and V40. That, actually, I quite like. Volvo has updated the S80's styling with slightly revised headlights and a new grille, but I kinda dig the still somewhat bluff shape. It's a long, long way from the old 'boxy but good' styling of the Volvo 850, but carries a sufficient amount of that classic look that it appeals to someone who still craves a nicely preserved 245 GL estate (again, me).
Inside, there are more new things, although the fundamental cabin architecture has remained unchanged. There's a new central display screen, lifted from higher-end versions of the S60, which sits rather awkwardly plonked on the dash as if someone has dropped a small portable TV through the windscreen from a great height. That apart, it works well, with slick graphics and a quickly learned logic system. The central console with is clearly-laid out buttons for air conditioning, stereo etc. has thankfully remained unchanged. but sadly, Volvo has parachuted its new all-digital instruments in where the main dials once sat. Now, as far as all-digital dials go, Volvo's ones are fine, and being able to switch between three colour schemes and layouts (Performance, Elegance and Eco) is fine, but the old S80 dials looked really classy and I miss them.
Thankfully, little else in the cabin has changed. The seats are the same; massive, over-stuffed, supportive and endlessly comfy. The only way to while away a long journey in greater comfort than this is to upgrade to Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, or possibly a Rolls-Royce Phantom. It's just a lovely, lovely seat and I wish any of my actual furniture was this good. Suck it, IKEA.
Part of that excellent comfort is down to the ride quality, which has clearly been tweaked by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Company. It's just pillow-soft, rolling with an easy, loping movement over pretty much any obstacle. It's especially satisfying to glide effortlessly over speed bumps, while others wince as their bump-stops get another battering.
Now, the downside to that lovely ride quality is handling that can't hold a candle to the Germans, or especially the Jaguar XF. The S80's not bad at all, really (it's largely a Ford Mondeo underneath so the basis it's starting from is good) but it lacks the urgency of a 5 Series, the steering balance of an E-Class or the sheer delicacy of an XF. It rolls a bit in corners (not as much as you expect it to actually) and you have to give the nose a chance to settle into a bend before putting on any power. The steering feels nicely weighted at first, but once you get lock on you can feel some inconsistency in the weighting, and an almost total lack of feel. With practice, the S80 can be hustled quite quickly and successfully, but really that's not what it's for. Get back on the motorway and relax.
The D3 2.0-litre five-cylinder diesel engine helps in that regard. It's really very refined, especially at low speeds, and when you do have to rev it and, like all diesels, it gets a touch noisy, that noise is underlain by a lovely five-cylinder backbeat. It's actually a characterful diesel noise and that will be sorely missed when Volvo replaces this unit with its all-new four-cylinder engines.
Economy is pretty good. Volvo quotes 4.9 litres per 100km on the combined cycle and I reckon that's doable. Mid-sixes is more likely if you're in town a lot - a penalty exacted by the Geartronic six-speed automatic gearbox. Supplied by Getrag, it's actually a dual-clutch transmission, and works equally well whether you want to slog along quietly, or snap some manual changes through with a flick of your wrist. Frankly, I think it's the gearbox you'd have to have in your S80 - it really suits the character of the car.
And that character is what will define whether or not you actually want an S80. It's so Swedish (comfy, ultra-safe, sensible) that if it could watch telly, all that would be on would be Wallander reruns and Eurovision '74. That puts it out on a limb in an ultra-conservative executive car market that seemingly wants only to buy German, or at a push British or Japanese. But I would implore you to at least have a try of an S80 if you're shopping in that mid-€40k price range. It's refreshingly different to the Teutonic norm, and seems so much less flashy and aggressive that you will attract far fewer withering glances from the pavement as you glide past with your 132-reg on. It's better value for money than the Germans, as long as you don't dip too deep into the options list, and it drives well enough that most people won't notice the difference.
Getting older can be tough, but I suspect having an S80 might ease that pain somewhat.
Audi A6: handsome, fab cabin, excellent engines. Getting very common though.
BMW 5 Series: king of the class and not hard to see why.
Jaguar XF: sharper looking and sharper to drive but can't match the Volvo's comfort.